31 May 2010

A timeless casserole

We all have those go-to meals. They're easy, typically cobbled together with a few pantry staples and an overwhelming number of these are one-dish meals.

Luckily, one of the reasons most of these meals get stuck in our weeknight rotation is that the family loves them. And the cook, well, she can't complain when a meal hits that many high notes.

My standby meal, always waiting in the wings, is tuna casserole. I realized recently that despite mentioning it several times before, I've never shared the recipe. That's in part because I was never given a recipe. I grew up watching my mom make it. She would use a red, heavy-bottomed sauce pan for the sauce, that, when spotted on the stove top, almost always meant tuna casserole.

It's actually a fairly simple dish. It's a cheese sauce mixed with elbow noodles and canned tuna. It was always served with Saltine crackers at my mom's table, and leftovers never sat in the fridge too long. I remember one time sitting at the table in my Great Grandma Peach's kitchen next to my Grandma Pat. My mom and her grandmother were near the sink, and they were talking food. My Grandma Pat mentioned that she didn't care for tuna casserole but she made it regularly for her kids growing up. She also said she topped it crushed potato chips. The potato chips bit started the wheels turning in my head, but frankly, before that moment, it never occurred to me that the dish was something my mother took from her own.

Like my mom must have done with me, I often keep Jasper entertained while I cook by letting him pull up a stool and watch. When I make tuna casserole, he seems to be in heaven. He gobbles up the cheese nearly as quick as I grate it, and he loves the little bowl of flour I give him while I make my roux. And, like I remember doing as a kid, he wants to try the dried, uncooked pasta.

I don't vary from this recipe. In fact I got a little over-passionate about it while making it at a restaurant when someone suggested I add mushrooms or peas. I won't, however, think ill of you if you want to tweak the recipe. After all, my mom never put potato chips on hers.

Tuna Casserole
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 and 3/4 cup milk, slightly warm
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese, plus more for topping
1 can tuna, drained and flaked
Short-cut dried pasta, cooked to package directions*
Salt and pepper to taste

4 Saltine crackers, crushed

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt the butter in a sauce pan over medium heat. Once the butter melts and bubbles begin to disapate, add flour slowly while stirring. Continue to stir while butter and flour mixture cooks, until the mixture looses the raw flour smell, about 3 to 4 minutes. Slowly add the warm milk while whisking continuously. Once milk has been added, whisk every once in a while while it comes to a slow bubble. Begin to reduce heat, continuing to stir. The sauce should begin to thicken. Add shredded cheese and stir until melted. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add tuna and stir to combine. Pour sauce over pasta and stir to coat pasta with sauce. Pour pasta into casserole dish. Top with more shredded cheese and then sprinkle the crushed crackers on top. Bake until cheese topping is slightly browned. Can be prepared ahead, cooled and refrigerated and baked later. Allow for longer baking time.

* I typically use the small elbow pasta, but any pasta that would cup sauce would work. Elbow, shells, and penne probably work best. I typically use a round casserole that is about 9 inches in diameter and four inches deep. A 9 by 13-inch also works well. I fill the casserole with the dried pasta until the casserole is about 1/2 to 3/4 full to know how much pasta you'll need. I find that works better than measuring cups since different pasta shapes fill the casserole differently.


Lisa said...

Great post! I love traditions. Not only do the classic recipes hold up well over the generations but thinking through them, from the past and into the future, is a blessing in itself. The memories are priceless!

Thanks for sharing your tuna casserole recipe, and for reminding me. I wonder why I haven't made t\Tuna Casserole in so long. It's a great staple and the weather around here is just right for it this week.

Amy said...

Yes, this rain makes for great casserole weather!

I love the tradition of food and cooking. It is absolutely priceless!

Emilia said...

I love your stories! I always feel like I'm standing in the kitchen with you! How fun that Jasper helps!

Kim said...

Yum! Yum! Yum! Thanks for the new comfort food recipe. At least for John and I.. the boys aren't fans yet.

Amy said...

Kim, you can always leave the tuna out and just call it mac and cheese (maybe up the cheese amount just a bit more or add different types!). I'm pretty sure they'll like it then!

Erin M. said...

Exactly, Amy. This recipe is nothing but macaroni and cheese with tuna thrown in. It needs peas, onion and celery.

Teasing! I made it the other night and we all enjoyed it.

(I did add peas.)

Kim said...

I make homemade mac and cheese all the time so I might try mixing our recipes to get it a little cheesier. I want them to eat it with tuna. We'll see if I can succeed.